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march of the headless women / fictionality, character identification, and whateverness

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Interesting synchronictiy. The other day I was in a Waterstones and was stunned yet again at the fact that the “headless women” book covers are still proliferating. What are the “headless women” book covers? Well, take a look here or here or here. Or take a look at this one, which happened to be on display on the 3-for-2 rack at the Waterstones in question, and which was written by an author I’ve met a few times.

It’s pretty obvious what’s interesting / discomforting / grating about the proliferation of covers of this sort. Implicit in their ubiquity is a sense on publishers’ parts that female readers, when choosing a novel, want to be able to project themselves into the work, to occupy the place of the female protagonist. If the person pictured on the cover of the book were to possess a head, and in particular a face, this would somehow block the ability for them to do so: But I don’t have red hair! But my eyes aren’t that colour! My cheekbones aren’t at all like that! It’s notable that works aimed at male audiences don’t take the same tack – often foregoing the depiction of people on the cover altogether.

Pretty condescending, isn’t it? Unfortunately one has a sense that the publishers know what works, and wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t work to some degree. I’ve seen an argument on twitter – now lost to us, as it was months ago – in which a PR person for a publisher responded to criticism of the practice with something like “I know, I know – it’s awful. But what do you want us to do about it? The books won’t move off the shelves if we don’t.”

Depressing. But here’s the interesting part. It just so happens that I had assigned – and had to prepare to teach early this week – a fantastic essay by Catherine Gallagher called “The Rise of Fictionality,” which was published in Franco Moretti’s magisterial anthology on the novel. (Luckily for you – and for me as I rushed to get the students a copy of it – PUP has the essay on-line here.) The essay is a vivid and succinct historicization of the emergence of fiction as a category in eighteenth-century Britain, a category born out of divergence both from “factual” writing and (and here’s where the brilliance of the piece truly lies) “fantastical” writing as well.

I won’t go into all the nuances of the argument here – do yourself a favour and read the piece. But here’s a few paragraphs that seem especially relevant to the acephalous women of Waterstones:

That apparent paradox—that readers attach themselves to characters be­cause of, not despite, their fictionality—was acknowledged and discussed by eighteenth-century writers. As I have already mentioned, they noticed that the fictional framework established a protected affective enclosure that en­couraged risk-free emotional investment. Fictional characters, moreover, were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real peo­ple. Although readers were often called to be privileged and superior wit­nesses of protagonists’ follies, they were also expected to imagine themselves as the characters. “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of oth­ers,” Samuel Johnson explained, “is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however fictitious . . . by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Johnson 1750). What seemed to make novelistic “others” outstanding candidates for such realiza­tions was the fact that, especially in contradistinction to the figures who pointedly referred to actual individuals, they were enticingly unoccupied. Because they were haunted by no shadow of another person who might take priority over the reader as a “real” referent, anyone might appropriate them. No reader would have to grapple with the knowledge of some real-world double or contract an accidental feeling about any actual person by making the temporary identification. Moreover, unlike the personae of tragedy or legend, novelistic characters tended to be commoners, who would fall be­neath the notice of history proper, and so they tended to carry little extratex­tual baggage. As we have noticed, they did carry the burden of the type, what Henry Fielding called the “species,” which he thought was a turntable for aiming reference back at the reader; a fictional “he” or “she” should re­ally be taken to mean “you.” But in the case of many novel characters, even the “type” was generally minimized by the requirement that the character escape from the categorical in the process of individuation. The fact that “le personnage . . . n’est personne” was thought to be precisely what made him or her magnetic.

Some recent critics are reviving this understanding and venturing to propose that we, like our eighteenth-century predecessors, feel things for characters not despite our awareness of their fictionality but because of it. Consequently, we cannot be dissuaded from identifying with them by re­minders of their nonexistence. We have plenty of those, and they configure our emotional responses in ways unique to fiction, but they do not diminish our feeling. We already know, moreover, that all of our fictional emotions are by their nature excessive because they are emotions about nobody, and yet the knowledge does not reform us. Our imagination of characters is, in this sense, absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing, but it is also constitutive of the genre, and it requires more explanation than the eighteenth-century commentators were able to provide.

That is to say, the “headlessness” of the fictional character, their availability to us because they are unblocked by connection to a “real person” and thus readily available for readerly identification, may be “absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing,” as are the images on the covers in the bookshop, but it is also one of the things that makes fiction what it is, and is what accounts for the special mental and emotional states that we experience as we read them.But to take this a step further (and here I am drawing out some of Gallagher’s arguments and taking them in a slightly different direction) it’s possible that reflections of Gallagher’s sort (and even the instinct catered to by the contemporary covers) point us to different sensibility about the ideology of fiction.

In short, we are made anxious about the protagonism of fiction, the structural mandate that it forces or soothes us into identification with the autonomous or semi-autonomous individual as such, that it serves as an advertisement for intricate interiority and in so doing may urge us away from the consideration of the exterior. But if it is the case that the fictionality of the fictional character is grounded on a certain availability, a certain openness, even a certain whateverness, we might be licensed to think that the ideological underpinnings of fiction are far more complex than conventional (literary Marxist) wisdom suggests. Rather than a cult of personality, fiction, at base, might start to seem a space for the emergence of impersonality – and rather than simply markers of readerly solipsism and commercial cynicism, the book covers above might suggest a nascently radical instinct lurking just below the surface of the Waterstones transaction.

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January 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Posted in agamben, fiction, novel, whatever

whatever, ads

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In real life, I have a nearly unpronounceable surname. Almost all vowels. At least it’s distinctive – search for it and you find only me, my father’s campaign contributions to the Republican party, and a long string of arrest records of distant relatives in West Grenville, Ontario. Neither my family nor I really knew how to say it, tried a few different ways, and finally settled in the one least likely to get me laughed at by my fellow jockish types.

But it seems that my pseudonym is just as difficult, if in another sense. There’s a small dispute going on over at digital emunction about the proper way to write the possessive form of my first pseudo name. Should it be Ads’ or Ads’s? Well, it depends whether Ads is a proper noun or common noun. As Michael Robbins writes in response to another comment:

Ads is whose name? For plural nouns, even if they serve as col­lec­tive proper nouns (like the Rolling Stones), CMS is clear: apos­tro­phe only. Now if some dude is called “Ads,” that’s another story; but the author post­ing as Ads is clearly post­ing as “Ads with­out Products,” like when Keith Richards posted in Kent’s Flarf review thread as “Stones,” or when the CEO of Hard­ees signed his com­ment in my meat thread “Hardees.” (I also know this because I once got into an argu­ment about it with some­one who said the same thing as Joel above, so I wrote directly to the edi­tors of CMS, who backed me up. I don’t care if you make fun of me.)

Ah but everyone’s missing the point! True to the fact that the title of this blog was inspired by a paragraph (not the one I’m about to clip in, but rather the one discussed here) from Agamben’s The Coming Community, my blog name is a whatever name, aporetically balanced directly between the proper and the collective.

Common and proper, genus and individual are only two slopes dripping down from either side into the watershed of whatever […] The passage from potentiality to act, from language to the word, from the common to the proper, comes about every time as a shuttling in both directions along a line of sparkling alternation on which common nature and singularity, potentiality and act change roles and interpenetrate. The being that is engendered on this line is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage – or rather, ethos.

As such, of course, it has no possessive form. There are no possessions of any sort down in the watershed of whatever.

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October 6, 2009 at 11:32 am

found memoir (part ii)

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(I am declaring this, retroactively, to be part i)

From Giorgio Agamben’s Profanations:

Each of us has known such creatures, whom Walter Benjamin defines as “crepuscular” and incomplete, similar to the gandharvas of the Indian sages, who are half celestial genie, half demon. “None has a firm place in the world, or firm, inalienable outlines. There is not one that is not either rising or falling, none that is not trading its qualities with its enemies or neighbor; none that has not completed its period of time and yet is unripe, none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence.” More intelligent and gifted than our other friends, always intent on notions and projects for which they seem to have all the necessary virtues, they still do not succeed in finishing anything and are generally idle [senz’ opera]. They embody the type of eternal student or swindler who ages badly and who must be left behind in the end, even if it is against our wishes. And yet something about them, an inconclusive geture, an unforeseen grace, a certain mathematical boldness in judgment and taste, a certain air of nimbleness in their limbs or words – all these features indicate that they belong to a complementary world and allude to a lost citizenship or inviolable elsewhere. In this sense, they give us help, even though we can’t quite tell what sort of help it is. It could consist precisely in the fact that they cannot be helped, or in their stubborn insistence that “there is nothing to be done for us.” For that very reason, we know, in the end, that we have somehow betrayed them.

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December 9, 2008 at 12:20 am

Posted in agamben, foundmemoir

agamben again

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I’ve been a bad amateur theorist for the past several years. * Attribute it to all-too-close-contact with a whole coterie of noxious lacanians, lording it over peasants like me with late-night phonecalls and backchatter and tenure threats. Whatever. But somehow I missed the fact that Agamben has gotten back to the interesting question (rather than the boring one, the s/o/e and all that schmittian jive). See No Useless Leniency for more information. I just ordered the book.

Agamben argues that he is not condemning pornography per se, but rather the neutralisation of the possibility of allowing erotic behaviours to idle, their profanation. What is reprehensible is to be captured by power, not the behaviour in the first place. This kind of idling can be found in the the indifferent gaze of Chloe des Lysses – a lack of complicity with the spectator, and a refusal of the brazen.

But this kind of profanation appears only temporarily, as the “solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image” (!) (“In Praise” 91) blocks this kind of possibility of profanation. The disgrace, according to Agamben, lies not in pornography itself, but in the apparatus of the fashion show or the pornographic shoot, that turns the sphere of pure means into a separated site of pure consumption.

“The unprofanable of pornography – everything that is unprofanable – is founded on the arrest and diversion of an authentically profanatory intention. For this reason, we must always wrest from the apparatuses – from all apparatuses – the possibility of use that they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.” (“In Praise” 92)

Ah, that’s just the sort of thing that gave this blog its Agamben-inspired name! Maybe I’ll rename the site profanatory intention.

* Really, I can’t even fake the pose. Those who know me know that I am Just-Another-Sweater-Bedecked English Professor Lecturer, far too gnomic and literary even to simulate it. Still, I am a JASBEL (interesting!) who appreciates a properly dialectical question when a properly dialectical question is raised….

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December 2, 2008 at 1:10 am

Posted in agamben, porn, theory


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I’m too tired (softball, in this heat, can you imagine?) tonight to do the following justice – an excerpt from the end of T.J. Clark’s response to Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity and Jameson’s The Cultural Turn and in particular the distinction that they forge between modernism and postmodernism. Originally appeared in the New Left Review in 2000:

Once or twice in his recent essays Fredric Jameson has turned specifically to defining modernism, and not surprisingly he has gone back to Adorno for help—to Adorno and Hegel. ‘For us,’ he quotes Hegel’s great dictum, ‘art no longer counts as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself.’ The task of the critic, Jameson says, is to understand why the prediction about art practice that seemed to follow from the dictum—that art, as a significant form of life, would end, or decline into mere decorative accompaniment—did not prove to be true. Something called modernism happened instead. ‘What did not conform to Hegel’s prognosis was the supersession of art by philosophy itself: rather, a new and different kind of art appeared to take philosophy’s place after the end of the old one, and to usurp all of philosophy’s claims to the Absolute, to being “the highest mode in which truth manages to come into being”. This was the art we call modernism.’ [7] Or again, in ‘Transformations of the Image’,

what distinguishes modernism in general is not the experimentation with inherited forms or the invention of new ones . . . Modernism constitutes, above all, the feeling that the aesthetic can only fully be realized and embodied where it is something more than the aesthetic . . . [It is] an art that in its very inner movement seeks to transcend itself as art (as Adorno thought, and without it being particularly important to determine the direction of that self-transcendence, whether religious or political). [8]

These are key episodes in Jameson’s text. Very often the moments at which he returns specifically to Adorno are those where the stakes of his whole analysis come clear. And these recent ones are clarifying. They allow me to state my basic disagreement with Jameson’s picture of modernism and whatever happened to it in the last thirty years—with Jameson’s picture, and, I think, Anderson’s. For the stress here on modernism as turning on a repeated claim, or effort, to transcend itself as art—its belief, to quote Jameson again, ‘that in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art’ [9]—seems to me exactly half the story. It is, if you like, a stress out of Adorno’s dialectic, which leaves unspoken—and therefore in the end demotes—the other, equally essential moment to Adorno’s account. For surely transcendence in modernism can only be achieved—is not this central to our whole sense of the movement’s wager?—by way of absolute immanence and contingency, through a deep and ruthless materialism, by a secularization (a ‘realization’) of transcendence—an absorption in the logic of form. Jameson’s modernism, that is to say, seems to me posited as a movement of transcendence always awaiting another, a distinct, movement (indeed, moment) at which there will take place, punctually, ‘the dissolution of art’s vocation to reach the Absolute’. [10] And this great, ultra-Enlightenment imagining of disabusal, of the stars coming down to earth, is of course what gives Jameson’s vision its force. But supposing (as I think Adorno supposed) that modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense.

From this picture of modernism there would follow, I feel, a different appraisal of the last thirty years. I guess it would turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, the figures of dissolution and disabusal in art practice—the familiar figures I have just listed—became themselves a form of transcendence; and, as always within modernism, a transcendence doomed to collapse. Or rather, not so much ‘doomed to collapse’ as simply to be confronted again with the pathos lying at the heart of disabusal—disabusal (true secularization) as one more aesthetic mirage among others, always looming ahead of modernism in the commodity desert, as a form of lucidity it never quite reaches. Warhol, inevitably, is for me increasingly the figure of this. How handmade and petty-bourgeois his bright world of consumer durables now looks! How haunted still by a dream of freedom! So that his Campbell’s Soup Can appears, thirty years on, transparently an amalgam—an unresolved, but naively serious dialectical mapping—of De Stijl-type abstraction onto a founding, consoling, redemptive country-store solidity. How like a Stuart Davis or a Ralston Crawford it looks, or an entry from the Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues! ‘History has many cunning passages,’ to quote Gerontion, ‘contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions.’ Does Warhol come to seem more and more a modernist because it turns out that what he inaugurated was another of modernism’s cycles? Or because what happened next was truly an ending, an exit, from which we inevitably look back on the pioneers and see them as touching primitives, still half in love with the art they are putting to death? I suspect the former. It could be the latter. Neither conclusion is comforting. Thirty years is not enough time to tell.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire essay – it’s short, but full. What Clark ultimately means to say, particularly in the last paragraph, is a bit hard to parse out. And this is probably a good thing. What to make of this “disabusal (true secularization)”? Perhaps he’s there already, but I think it would be valuable to scroll back up my page and take a look at the epigraph that lies underneath my title. That’s where I am headed – or where I’m coming from – on this topic.

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July 17, 2006 at 11:32 pm

everyone can find in it his own existence

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From Walter Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations:

What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.

There are lots of different ways to describe Benjamin’s distinctive form of writing, his idiosyncratic form of thought. Some prefer the term “thetic,” which obviously works best with the pieces actually broken into theses, like the “Theses on the Philosophy” of history or the “Work of Art” essay. Others go with “dialectical,” which works as well, but perhaps distracts a bit from the actual contours of the texts.

This passage from the essay on Proust is a perfect example of what I would call Benjamin’s late and distinctive form. And it bears an amazing message, if you listen closely.

The third sentence takes up the blurring of the event, the significant occurrence, into the banal, the long durée, the everyday. For a gloss we can turn back just a bit for this:

Only the actus purus of recollection itself, not the author or the plot, constitutes the unity of the text. One may even say that the intermittence of the author and plot is only the reverse of the continuum of memory, the pattern on the backside of the tapestry.

In Proust’s work, then, we find a reversal of – or the surfacing of the reversal of – the conventional way that he conceive of novels. Rather than organizing the inchoate, the author and plot only interrupt, disrupt, punctuate the underlying continuum of infinite recollection. This reversal levels the finite event down into the infinite “unfolding” of time.

Well enough. But then back to the next sentence of the initial quote, which sends us in a very different direction:

When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.

Do you see it? The leap? From the dissolution of significance into the everyday, without a breath, into this – into the generalization of the particular, into communicability. We start with nihilism, neglect the anxious consideration of the abyss that we might expect, and turn in the next sentence to communication.

Reminds me, just this tiny passage, quite a bit of the move that’s being traced out here – the work that gives this blog its name.

The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. The epochal process of the emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the ‘girls,’ in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at an industrial level when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now become something truly whatever.

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March 22, 2006 at 1:22 am